Jess looks beyond her years when he opens the door. There are lines around her eyes and the corners of her lips, purple shadows and dull expressions. She looks tired and worn and doesn’t accept the offered drink that she once would have in a heartbeat.
He guesses her intent before she even speaks and only lets her in because of her appearance, aware of what his answer will be before she asks.
He’s not coming back.
Instead, however, she sits and fidgets and twists her fingers together like she isn’t sure how to start.
“Are you okay?” Steve asks, sitting opposite and meeting her gaze. She doesn’t look up, “Jess? Is everything alright?” Worry starts to fill him, “Is Dani – ?”
Sick? Kidnapped? He doesn’t know what to ask but she shakes her head anyway.
“No, I’m fine,” She says, “It’s nothing like that. It’s not – it’s about Tony.”
Steve sits up, his face hardening, “Oh.”
“Don’t do that,” Jess snaps, “Okay this is hard enough. And I don’t know anyone else willing enough to try.”
“Try what?” Steve asks, a million things on his tongue but he holds them back, if only because she looks so fragile right now.
“He’s – have you seen him?” She asks, “Since you’ve been back?”
“Once.” He says, “After Osborn.” He rubs his cheek, “He was in the suit. We didn’t talk.”
“That wasn’t him.” Jess says, “That was just a suit. Tony wasn’t in the field with Osborn.” She doesn’t offer anything else and Steve sighs.
“Alright I’ll bite,” He says, “What’s he done to himself now?”
“Don’t.” Jess snaps again, “Don’t do that, you were friends.” He stands, turning away.
“Were, Jess.” He emphasises, “Things have changed.”
“Yeah no shit.” She sniffs, wiping her nose with the back of her hand, “But you were friends once. Doesn’t that mean anything?”
He runs a hand through his hair, wishing everyone would just leave him alone, “What’s going on Jess?” He asks his own question instead of answering hers, and she hunches over.
“Tony’s – not been right.” She says, “He needs help.” There’s an understatement, “He doesn’t know where he is, or what’s going on half the time and he – he’s vulnerable.”
“To everything.” She wipes at her nose again, “He shouldn’t be out there alone and I – he won’t listen to me. But he’ll listen to you.”
Steve sits again, his anger still itching under his skin but his imagination conjures an image of a lost and scared Tony that mollifies it a little, “What do you mean, out alone?”
“He keeps going to the mansion,” Jess says, “And that place is on it’s deathbed. I tried to get him out but – he doesn’t listen to me.”
“And you couldn’t just force him out? Put him in bed and set an alarm if he bolts again?” She gives him a dark look.
“I think a visit to the tower is long overdue.” She says and he ignores that and focuses on where Tony is.
“So he’s at the mansion now?” He clarifies and she nods, “Where?”
“He usually wanders the bedrooms.” She says, “Or what’s left of them anyway.”
“Usually?” Steve asks, remembering how she’d said that Tony keeps going to the mansion.
“He doesn’t listen,” She repeats, “And he can’t keep going back there but no one – there’s no one willing to try but I know he’ll listen to you. He always has.”
“Not always.” He says. “And I’m not an Avenger anymore. He’s not my responsibility.”
Jess looks at him, “Your responsibility.” She repeats, monotone.
Steve downs his drink, “Look Jess. I don’t know what you want from me – ”
“I want you to show some decency for a man you loved!” She shouts and Steve glances away, “Don’t pretend like you didn’t, we all saw it. And he’s done shit yes, but he’s been through some shit too.” She scrubs at her face, “And none of us have helped matters.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Steve frowns and she rolls her eyes.
“Tony needs help,” She says, “And he’s not getting it. I came here to try you but, obviously, I misjudged how much you cared.” She stands, getting her coat, “He put us through hell during the War. All of us, not just you. But you’re the only one who’s run away.”
Stung, he glares at her, “That’s just not true though, is it.”
She opens the door, looking back at him the once, “Isn’t it?” She asks, closing the door and leaving when he doesn’t answer. He wants to go after her but his pride and anger keeps him back and instead, he simply locks the door and sits back down.
His tablet is beside him and he searches pictures of the mansion idly, his heart panging at the resplendent view some of the photos captured. Then he sees the burnt versions, their ruined home, and he switches the tablet off.
Unbidden, an image of Tony comes to him. Tony crying and asking how he can make their fighting stop. Tony breaking down at his funeral. Tony smiling when they spar together and eat out. He shuts his eyes and before he’s even realised it, he’s made the decision to go.
He takes his bike, knowing the route by heart and avoiding traffic on the way, his head spinning as he goes. The mansion has been barred to the public for being a hazard since the fire and he’d had an altercation with Tony within it as well, which hasn’t done its foundation any good.
Now, it looks just as Jess had described it. Like it’s on its deathbed.
He walks through the open and bent-over gate, spotting chains coiled on the ground that Tony must have broken on his way in. Steve drapes them over an overgrown hedge and steps past the graffitied walls and broken beer bottles that now grace their grounds. It breaks his heart to see it and he wonders how Tony had reacted, seeing his mother’s mansion in tatters and abused like this. He shakes his head, stepping through the doors and into the foyer.
It’s dark but still quite intact, a large hole in its middle, but other than that it’s pretty stable. The stairs look hazardous however, with steps missing and breaks gaping between the broken banister. He climbs over it carefully, checking its stability before placing each foot down, until he’s upstairs.
As he walks, he hears a light splashing and glances down to see water. A pipe must have burst recently, which makes the mansion even more dangerous than it already is. He hurries at the thought, his eyes finally adjusting to the darkness, and the water follows him down the hallway.
He finds Tony hunched over a cindered pile of wood, rummaging through it like it held the secrets to his sanity. He doesn’t look up when approached, something his years of fighting should have tuned him into doing. Obviously the wood is too important.
He looks awful too, in what looks like a one-piece gown and hoodie, barefoot and manic-looking. His hair is longer than Steve remembers and it’s tangled, unbrushed and wild, and there’s a bruise on his cheek.
As Steve nears, he realises he’s muttering to himself as well and his heart sinks. Jess is right. He needs help.
“Hey Tony,” He murmurs, watching as Tony reacts only a little, before continuing to search, “What are you up to?”
“I can’t find my socks.” Tony tells him, frantic in his looking now, “I can’t – I need them. I’m late.” His hands run over the burnt wood, reminiscent of a man patting the bottom of a drawer. Steve doesn’t say anything for a while and Tony eventually stops, glancing at him and looking so small that Steve almost wants to yell at him, if only to change that expression, “Are we assembling?” He asks.
“No.” Steve tells him, “And that wouldn’t be my call now anyway.” It’s a useless reminder. Tony looks like he’ll forget it in another hour or so. “I’m not on the team anymore. And neither are you.”
“Not on the team.” Tony straightens, his search for socks over, “But this is – my house. My mansion. Why wouldn’t I be – ?”
“The mansion burnt down Tony,” Steve reminds him, “You know this. It’s gone.”
Tony glances around, his eyes dark and wide, “No that’s – I just saw Janet. She was just here …” He points at a hollow entry-way, where there had once been a doorway leading toward the main bedrooms. Steve remembers mistletoe being hung over it and Halloween decorations dangling down to spook half-asleep Avengers.
He remembers Janet laughing at her pranks and almost smiles, but he remembers her funeral too.
“Janet’s dead, Tony,” He says gently and Tony stares at him, “Has been for a while.” Tony shakes his head slowly and despite himself, Steve steps forward to comfort him. He doesn’t get far before Tony jerks back however and he stops, “Don’t. Don’t, I – I need my socks.” He turns back to the pile of debris, “For the funeral.”
Steve blinks twice, his eyes warm, “What funeral?” He asks and Tony slams a hand down over a sharp piece of splintered wood.
He barely reacts to the blood or to how his palm has now been sliced open, “The funeral, Steve!” He snaps, “For – for your funeral.”
“I’m right here, Tony.” Steve tells him, “I’m back now. Remember?”
Tony stares down at his hand, surprised at the blood dripping down to his wrists, “Janet was just here too.” He whispers and Steve sighs, running a hand down his face.
“Let me look at that,” He offers, stepping forward to take Tony’s hand but it’s snatched away from him before he can even begin to inspect it.
“Don’t touch me!” Tony demands, his eyes darting around, fearful and so insane, “You don’t – I’m not yours. You don’t touch me.”
“Okay.” Steve puts his hands up, stepping back, “I’m only trying to help.”
“I don’t need your help.” Tony says and that is so far from the truth that Steve almost yells at him for it, “I need – I need my socks.”
“Okay.” Steve nods, “Okay I’ll help you look.” He waves a hand at the wood, “It won’t be in there, so we need to look somewhere else.”
“This is my drawer. My room.” Tony tells him, “Why wouldn’t it be here?”
“You moved it, remember?” Steve lies and he shouldn’t do this, he shouldn’t encourage an already delusional mind, but the mansion’s dangerous and they need to leave. “To my flat.” Tony looks at him, “You said it would be easier to dress there.”
The lie is feeble at most but Tony’s expression clears, “Right,” He breathes and Steve nods.
“Yeah.” He steps forward again and this time Tony doesn’t back away, “Yeah, so come on. I’ll drive us.”
Tony nods, dusting himself off and when Steve walks out, he follows him. They step past what had once been beautifully furnished bedrooms and he helps Tony ease down the stairs without falling through those gaps.
He has no idea how he’d done this alone before and just prays that he doesn’t come back again when he’s feeling less agile. Their footsteps echo across the foyer but once he reaches the doors by the end, he notices that Tony’s have quietened. He turns, to comfort him, just in time to spot him walking through the doors to the kitchen.
Dammit. “Tony – !” He jogs toward him, flinching when the stairs creak as he does and forcing himself to slow down and not upset the already fragile building, “Tony wait.” He turns into the kitchen but Tony’s not there and when he steps out into the hallway, he sees him walking slowly toward the elevator.
He walks with deliberate and yet delicate steps, like in a trance, and Steve power-walks toward him to prevent him from reaching the elevator doors.
The metal had clearly expanded in the heat of the fire and then crumpled from the change in temperature, leaving a web-shaped door with black slits on either side. Large enough for a man of Tony’s size to fall through.
“Tony!” He doesn’t reach him in time and Tony climbs through the gap and there’s a thud, “Tony!” He runs now, ignoring the moans of the mansion around him, but once he peeks through the gap he can see Tony standing on top of the broken elevator. And he’s fine.
He reaches up and grabs the wires, hoisting himself over the wall until he can slide past it and wriggle his way down toward the basement and his lab.
“Shit.” Steve pushes away from the wall. He can’t fit through that same gap so he leaves the elevator to jog toward the foyer. The hole that he’d walked past before is big enough for him to jump through, and he lands in what had once been their meeting room.
Now, their portraits have been melted into blocks of colour and the screens are black and shattered. He steps over glass and picks his way toward the doors. These had been automatic but now, like the elevator, have crumpled in the fire. He squeezes through their largest gap, his chest burning with the attempt to hold his shoulders in, and he gasps for breath once he’s through.
Tony’s lab is down the hall and he paces past grey walls spotted with black, peeling wallpaper and more melted portraits, until he finds the doors. They’re sealed shut but the window to the lab must have shattered in the fire and Tony has clearly climbed through that and is sitting by his old desk.
“Tony,” Steve climbs into the lab to join him, “Tony, I told you, we need to go.”
Tony looks at him and there are tears now, his eyes impossibly huge on his paling face, “I don’t want to go back.” He whispers and Steve wishes this wasn’t his job.
“Go back where?” He asks and Tony hunches over, putting his hands over his ears.
“To the Hole.” He says and Steve frowns, walking toward him. He steps on something that cracks and glances down to see an ident-card beneath his boot. It’s Logan’s and he sighs, picking it up and placing it on an overturned desk. Despite the broken window, the lab is mostly in shape, and the tables have only curled by the edges, every tool or kit in here just black but still intact.
He wonders if Tony had made them that way, to withstand fire. He wonders why he didn’t do the same with everything else, but then, it had been his mother’s mansion. Maybe he hadn’t wanted to change more than he already had.
“What hole, Tony?” He asks, forcing his memories back, “There’s no hole, we’re just going to my flat.”
“No.” Tony shakes, “No.” His tears fall now but he doesn’t hide them nor wipe them away, “I can’t. I paid. I paid for it.”
“Paid for what?” Steve asks, his patience starting to run out. They don’t have time for a breakdown right now, they need to get out of here, “Paid for what Tony?”
Tony looks up at him, “For you.” He warbles and Steve walks before he can be stopped. He steps around Tony and grabs him by the arm, forcing him to stand.
“Come on Tony,” He says, “We can talk more about this outside, okay.”
“No!” Tony yanks back but this time Steve is ready and he holds fast, “No, I can’t go back! I can’t, let me go!” To stop him from getting hysterical, Steve does, and he backs up with a hand over where he’d been grabbed, “I need my socks.” He murmurs and Steve feels like crying.
“For what, Tony?” He barks and Tony flinches.
“For the – the funeral.”
“There is no funeral!” Steve yells, “I’m not dead! But you will be soon if we don’t get out of here!”
Tony presses his lips together, “Are we – are we assembling?” He asks, confused, “Are we under attack?”
Steve closes his eyes, his anger leaving him, “No Tony. We’re not. But the mansion is going to collapse, that’s why we need to leave.”
“What are you talking about?” Tony frowns, “It’s fine.” He gestures around him, “We’re fine.”
“We?” Steve pants and Tony nods.
“Everyone. They’re upstairs.” He says, “Luke asked Jess to marry him. We’re celebrating.”
Steve turns away for a moment, pressing a hand over his eyes, “Oh Tony.” He tries to compose himself but too many memories jar his attempts and he isn’t sure he can handle seeing a man he’s loved for so long act so lost. “Tony … “ You’re confused is on the tip of his tongue but he holds it back, “Alright Tony.” He says instead, “We should join them, then. Right?”
Tony wipes at his face, “But my socks.” He reminds him and Steve nods.
“Right. Your socks.” He says, “We should get them from my flat first, then come back. What do you say?”
Tony stiffens at that, “And then you’ll handle me.” He says and Steve pauses, “Put me in the hole. Keep everyone safe.”
“Tony,” Steve tries again, sticking to the flat idea, but Tony snaps back.
“No!” He screams and there’s a pop from somewhere down the hall. Steve turns to it and hears the mansion’s creaking intensify. They’ve run out of time.
He lunges forward and grabs Tony by the arm again, hauling him out and lifting him over the window’s ledge. Tony yells and tugs on his grip but he doesn’t let go this time, not until they’re back in the meeting room. He stands on the table and pulls Tony up.
“I’m going to throw you up to the foyer.” He tells him and Tony shakes his head 'no', “Yes, Tony, we need to leave. Now.” He puts his hands around his waist, “I’m going to throw you up and then you are going to wait for me.”
Tony still shakes his head but he braces for the jump all at the same time, grabbing the edge of the hole once he’d thrown up. He pulls himself up over it and once he’s clear, Steve crouches and then launches himself up to grab it too.
Once he’s got a grip, he looks around for Tony and finds him stood waiting for him as asked. Beyond relieved, he gets to his feet and pushes him in front, “Go.” He orders and Tony listens, hobbling across the foyer toward the doors.
Once out, the mansion remarkably stays intact until they’re far enough away, and then it folds in on itself, collapsing like a house of cards, and he pants when he watches it crumble. A finality to a life he’d once loved.
Tony is pale beside him and it takes him a moment for him to realise that they’re not alone. Shield agents are gathered in the grounds, a van parked by the old gate, and there’s a few reporters scattered around as well; not nearly as much as there would have been years ago but enough to garner attention.
“What is this?” He asks, his voice raw, and he wonders if Jess had called them after he’d refused to help. One of the agents steps forward.
“Thank you, Mr Rogers,” He says and the absence of Captain, despite his wanting it to be that way, hits like an insult out of this man’s mouth, “We’ll take it from here.”
“Take what from here?” He asks and someone zip-ties Tony’s hands together, freezing when Steve steps into their space, “What the hell is this?” He asks again and that same agent blinks at him, unimpressed.
“Mr Stark’s state of mind is a concern,” He says, like it’s old news, “Director Hill has requested he remain in a secure location whenever he has an episode.” Steve narrows his eyes, “He was released two months ago but clearly,” He gestures at Tony, who has now gone still and resigned, “This was too early.”
“He’s grieving.” Steve argues and the agent gives him a long look, “He’s lost his entire life, he doesn’t need to be locked away for it.”
“If you have concerns, Director Hill can talk to you.” The agent says but Steve grabs him before he can leave. Several guns are trained on him almost immediately and he hears cameras flashing to document it, “Mr Rogers. I suggest you think before you act.”
“I’m working on that notion,” Steve tells him, “It started a Civil War the first time, so you could say I learned a lesson on it.”
“I see.” The agent says, “Then I’ll ask why you decided to grab my arm, if you’ve thought it through.”
“To stop you from walking away.” Steve answers, “And to ask why Tony’s mind is such a concern to Shield when he’s not an Avenger anymore. He isn’t a danger to anyone but himself like this.”
“And to anyone who follows him into a hazardous area.” The agent notes, looking at the mansion.
“That was my choice.” Steve says, “And that does not make Tony dangerous either.”
“Nevertheless.” The agent says, “This is an order that was voted on by the Avengers.” Steve stops, “And as you and Mr Stark are no longer members, you will have to take it up via protocol.” He pulls his arm free from Steve’s slackening grip, “Now if you’ll excuse us.”
They leave as a group, Tony helped into the back of the van and belted in. He lets them take him, numb and quiet, and Steve watches them go.
He wishes he could stop it but the agent’s right. If he made a fuss now, as a civilian and a non-Avenger, nothing would be fixed. Instead, he listens to what Jess had said to him before and walks back to his bike.
Maybe a visit to the tower really is long overdue.
He requests access upon arrival and it’s almost instantaneous, which makes him believe that someone has clearly been expecting him. He steps through the elevator and into the communal area, seeing Logan, Luke, Peter, Sam and Hank sitting over the sofas. He feels ambushed and scowls.
“Hey Steve,” Luke greets but the others look tense. It’s then that Steve spots Bucky in the corner, leaning against the wall with his arms folded and in his old black combat gear, not the Captain America uniform. Jess isn’t here but they’re all clearly aware of what has just happened, “How did it go?”
“Oh fine,” Steve says, “Shield took him. But you already knew that, didn’t you.” His tone must hit because Sam bristles.
“It’s for the best,” He says, “He never should have been let out.”
“It was too soon.” Hank agrees and Steve glares at him, “It’s for Stark’s own good.” He snaps in response to that and Steve snorts.
“I’m sure.” He says, “He seems to be doing great.”
Logan leans back, “He was worse before.” He says and Steve nods.
“Oh, did you visit him?” He asks, sarcastically and he hears Logan growl.
“Hey Steve,” Peter pipes up, “Maybe give us a break to explain before you declare whether we can go to heaven or not.”
Steve frowns, folding his arms across his chest, “Fine.” He says, “Explain.”
“He was talking to ghosts. Or to himself.” Sam says, “And he was a mess, he’d get confused. Kept thinking anyone dead was alive and vice-versa.” He stops and Steve stares.
“So, you locked him up?” He asks, disbelieving.
“We couldn’t have had him bat-shit crazy and running around like that,” Luke says, “It was bad enough he’d been crazy and in charge of SHRA, and then even crazier when the Skrulls attacked.”
Steve closes his eyes, rubbing his forehead, “I don’t understand. Did you lock him up to get him help or to punish him?”
Belatedly, he remembers Tony crying in his lab, I paid. I paid for it.
When no one says anything, he prompts, “For having a breakdown?” and Peter shifts.
“He got you killed Cap.” He says, “He lied. He attacked us, he used us, and he got you killed. All because he was going insane.”
“Stark’s mind is a weapon and when it started to deteriorate, we paid for it,” Hank says. Steve clenches his fists at his side.
“Did you ever stop to wonder that maybe all this is too much for one man?” He asks and Logan snorts.
“We all go through the same shit. None of us reacted like he did.”
“You’ve been around a lot longer than Tony has, Logan. I’d say you’ve had time to adjust.” Steve says coolly, “And I’d also say that all of us here have had at least two breakdowns in our lives but when Tony behaves vulnerable, he’s treated like a criminal.”
“This isn’t poor baby Stark, Steve,” Hank snaps, clearly stung, “His breakdowns get people killed.”
“Janet’s death isn’t on Tony,” Steve reminds him and Hank shakes his head.
“He was the futurist.” He says, “Where was all his knowledge and all his ego when it was needed? When Janet needed it?”
Steve looks at him, frowning, and suddenly he’s struck with a dull thought, “What’s the Hole?” He asks and he’s met with confused stares, “Tony said to me he didn’t want to go back.” He explains, “To the Hole.”
No one says anything until eventually, Bucky straightens, “Shield put him in confinement.” He says, “In the dark.” Steve swallows past a very tight throat, “He probably means that.”
“In the dark.” Steve repeats and Sam stands.
“It calms him down,” He explains and Steve feels anger so rough, it burns.
“The dark calms him down?” He asks, “The dark – ? Pitch black darkness calms Tony Stark down?”
Sam frowns, glancing at Hank, "I – ”
Steve notices and rounds on him, “I guess it was your idea, huh. To throw him in there.” Hank glowers at him, “Punish him for Janet.”
“And I’m right to.”
“No, you’re not,” Steve yells, his voice thundering, “He needed your help, not this! One man and you put the world on his shoulders! And then you pack him up and chuck him in a dark pit to stir his mind until he’s fully insane.” He throws his hands up, “Christ, this is completely – ”
“Listen Steve,” Luke says, “You weren’t here and he was a mess, okay. Before being locked up, he was a horror movie. Crying and wandering around like some Victorian widow. He wouldn’t even change his goddamn clothes, and I have a kid to protect.”
“Sounds to me like someone who was very depressed.” Steve counters and Peter worries over his lip, “Someone who needed help not confinement.”
“Well where were you then?” Logan asks, “If you’re so knowledgeable about what Stark needs, why don’t you give it to him?”
“You should have called me to.” Steve counters and Sam scoffs.
“We called you back tonnes of times.”
“To be your leader again, not for this,” Steve snaps, “No one told me Tony was – how long has he been in confinement?” No one answers, “How long?” He demands, turning to the corner, “Bucky?”
“Osborn locked him up first.” He says, “We just – didn’t let him out afterward.”
He imagines Tony, thrown in a room by Osborn, alone, and then seeing old friends open that door only to shut it locked again anyway.
“So, when was he a mess, I’m confused,” Steve looks at the rest of them again, “If he was locked away by Osborn, why was Dani’s safety, or anyone’s safety an issue? Why was he left in there?”
“Beast would talk to him and he would freak out.” Peter says, “He wasn’t – we don’t know what happened to him when Osborn was in charge. But he wouldn’t accept help either. And when he learnt that Osborn was dead and you were alive? He just lost it.”
Steve stares at him, “Define lost it.” He scorns.
“He wasn’t right after you died.” Peter continues, quietly now, “On the news – he cried. And once the Skrulls … when it was all over, he asked me where you were. And when I reminded him, he – ” He blinks, visibly coming to a realisation, “He would talk to himself in the cell and wander around like Luke said but – he was – he kept saying dead people’s names.”
“He was grieving.” Steve tells him because what else could it be? To have been through so much, lose so many, and then be thrown into the dark without a friend in sight? Tony was already somewhat fragile anyway and this is likely what made him lose his sanity.
Ghosts in the night.
“Grieving.” Luke repeats, mocking.
“He has a fucked-up way of doing it, if it’s true,” Logan comments.
“And what’s your method?” Steve demands, “Run through the woods and tear into nature?”
“It’s less crazy than role-playing Woman In Black.” Logan snaps.
Steve ignores that, looking to Peter, “Where is this Hole? Osborn’s old HQ?”
Peter shakes his head, looking pale, “It’s here.” He says, “The tower.” Steve pauses, staring at him, “Osborn changed it when he took over. There’s a room at the top that he put Tony in.”
That’s all it takes for Steve to leave the room and punch the button to go up on the elevator. No one follows him and he finds anger at the Shield agents for not simply telling him. They must have dumped Tony and left before he’d gotten here.
The penthouse had been Tony’s back when the tower had first been in use but now the entire area has been cleared out. Instead, there’s another communal area with a rota of meal-times. He glances at it as he passes, noting what must be the times that Tony is given food in his isolation. There’s a pile of clothes on a chair, dirty and unwashed. The socks are balled up on the floor and he kicks them aside to get where he needs to be.
There are stairs by the end, winding once around, and when he reaches their end he sees a small white door that he would need to bend to walk through. It’s password locked and he slams a fist into the screen until it spits out sparks and opens for him.
Inside is pitch black, shadows moving as the door slides open. Then a single light flickers on and he sees Tony sitting on the edge of a mattress with his head in his hands. He looks up when he hears the door, squinting and shielding his face from the light, and Steve’s chest aches when he looks at him.
“Steve?” Tony asks, standing. There’s a bruise around his neck that hadn’t been there before and Steve files a reminder to find out which agent is responsible, away, “Wha – ?”
“We’re going,” Steve snaps, refusing to explain anything until they’re away from this room and somewhere warm and fully-lit, “Now.”
Tony stares at him and when he steps forward, Steve hears a clink of metal. He glances down and sees a chain wrapped around Tony’s ankle; it winds down toward a small hook in the floor and he feels sick looking at it. Tony notices.
“I’m crazy.” He whispers, like it’s all Steve needs to know to justify this, “And I’ve broken out before.”
“Well you’re breaking out again,” Steve tells him, bending to snap the chain. Tony lets him, his eyes dark, but as soon as the metal bends just slightly there’s a pitched noise that fills the room. Tony presses his hands to his ears, squeezing his eyes shut, and the door locks itself from behind them.
Steve stands, ignoring the noise, until the voices start to come from within it. Moans and screams, recorded distorted echoes of people they’d once known. He hears Janet, the scream she’d given before being blown to bits by the Skrulls and he wants to throw up. He’s seen the footage, he recognises that sound.
More join them and he hears Tony panting and gasping in the dark and he realises that this is an alarm. Osborn’s creation no doubt and it’s no fucking wonder Tony’s as confused as he is.
He feels his way back to the door and kicks it hard, three times, hearing it fall before finally seeing light again. The sounds leave the room but continue on, reverberating around them, and he takes the chains off and lifts Tony into his arms.
There’s no protest and Tony stays hunched, his hands over his ears and his eyes shut so tightly he’s likely seeing flashes behind his lids. He steps out and Sam runs around the corner to see him.
“What the hell is – ?” He starts before seeing Tony and stopping.
“Osborn’s idea of a deterrent.” Steve says, “If Tony tries to leave, these sounds play for him. And god knows how long it goes on for.” Tony whimpers in his arms and he pushes past Sam to leave.
“We didn’t – that’s – ” Sam starts, wide-eyed, “We didn’t know. I didn’t know the room did this.”
“Yeah.” Is all Steve says to that, using his shoulder to push open the doors out and getting the elevator back down. Sam catches it with him, jogging inside, and he presses the ground floor before he can.
“Jesus.” Sam says when the doors close and the sounds disappear, “I’ve not – he does look bad.” Steve looks at him, “I’ve not really seen him.”
“There are rotas.” Steve says, “I saw them, saw your name.”
“Yeah we put food there,” Sam explains, “But I’ve not – I never went in. Just opened it enough to put a tray down.”
“So no one made sure he actually ate the stuff?” Steve asks and Sam has the gall to look ashamed.
“He wouldn’t accept help from any of us and – with everything else and the mess Osborn and his gang left, we had our hands full,” He shifts, “I figured, if he didn’t want to eat, he didn’t want to eat. It was his choice.”
Steve just nods, walking out when the elevator stops, “Right.” He says and Sam stays where he is, stood frozen as the doors shut again. Peter stands when he sees them, looking at Tony with his lips pressed together, and Steve pauses for just a moment.
“Have a good look.” He snaps and Peter jerks back as though struck. He hates himself for that jab, especially when the worry leaves Peter’s eyes and anger floods them instead.
“I'm not the one who slammed a shield into his neck!” He snaps back and Steve takes it. “I’m sorry,” Peter then says, “I didn’t – I get it. You’re angry. But we’ve not – Tony isn’t – ” He sighs, “He was the least of our problems, that’s all. It wasn’t personal.”
Steve looks at him, “Yes it was.” He says and Tony finally opens his eyes again. He winces at the lights and turns away to see Peter standing there. Steve slowly lets him down but Tony doesn’t even register that he’d been carried in the first place.
“Hi Pete.” He whispers and Peter looks him over. The hoody he’d been in before has been taken away and now that he can see him, Steve notices that the gown is still on. It’s pinned and similar to a hospital gown, and he wonders whether Tony’s actually been to medical or if this is simply the easiest thing to put him in.
“I’m sorry,” Tony continues, and Peter blinks, “For everything.” He smiles then and it’s achingly beautiful. Haunted. “I want you to know that.”
The worry is back in Peter’s eyes and Tony bends to throw up. Steve catches him immediately and lifts him back up, walking out of the tower and toward his bike. Peter follows, grabbing a set of car keys.
“I’ll drive, leave your bike,” He says, “You can’t carry him at the same time.”
Steve lets him and gets into the car, holding Tony until they’re by his flat. Peter comes in with him and Tony wobbles on his feet and runs for the bathroom. They hear him vomit again.
“Is he okay?”
“Wasn’t your concern needed months before this?” Steve asks, wearily, and he’s surprised Peter doesn’t ask the same of him.
“I should get back.” He eventually says instead and Steve nods, “Do you – will he need anything?”
“Sleep. And sanity.” Peter walks out without a goodbye at that and Steve hates how unfair he’s being. But then life isn’t fair and what’s happened to Tony is beyond unfair.
He understands their reasons for locking him away, he understands it perfectly, and that’s what makes him so angry. Would he have voted with them to keep Tony barred? To have Shield ‘handle’ his episodes?
He doesn’t even know.
He steps into the bathroom when Tony doesn’t come out for a while and finds him asleep over the toilet lid. He sighs, picking him up and dropping him on the bed in his room. He takes a spare blanket for the sofa and promises himself that he’ll deal with this all in the morning. He’s too tired for it now.
Switching the lights off on automatic, he closes the door and makes himself comfortable, falling asleep out of pure exhaustion but it doesn’t last long.
He wakes to a dull, orange glow, and groans when he realises that it’s his lamp. Sitting up to switch it off, he suddenly sees Tony on his knees beside the sofa, watching him, and he prides himself on not screaming in shock.
Tony’s eyes are calm and he seems almost serene as he stares over Steve like some ill-omened angel. Steve clears his throat, leaning back slightly to take him in.
“Hey Tony,” He whispers and Tony’s smile is blinding. His heart aches. He wishes he hadn’t spoken.
“Are you real?” Tony asks and Steve shifts to put his legs on the ground, forcing Tony to rock back onto his heels and then eventually stand and sit on the sofa too.
“Yes.” Steve tells him, “I’m back. Fury had a – it’s a long story.”
Tony nods slowly, his smile still brighter than anything, “I’m so glad you’re here.” He murmurs, only for his face to suddenly fall, “I’m sorry for everything.” His voice hitches and Steve puts a hand on his shoulder.
“It’s alright.” He says, despite their relationship being far from repair and there being many messes that still need fixing, “Don’t worry about it for now.”
“You’re forgiving me?” Tony asks, wonder in his voice, and Steve wants to punch his hand through a wall.
“I’m saying go to bed.” He says and Tony turns to stare around the flat.
“There’s mould in here.” He comments and Steve pinches the bridge of his nose. His walls are a clean white and there are no leakages.
“I’ll make a note of it.” Tony laughs softly and the sound should be relieving to hear but there’s a bleed of insanity still within it. Even now, Steve doesn’t think he’s aware of where he really is.
“I missed you,” He hums, shutting his eyes and slumping back, letting his head fall to Steve’s shoulder, “I wanted to die when you were gone.” Steve grows cold, “I tried, too. In the Hole. But there was nothing sharp enough.”
“You’re not going back there, don’t worry,” Steve manages to get out, “But you should really get some rest right now. Okay?”
“… okay,” Tony whispers, lifting his head up and looking at him. His gaze is piercing, even in the dim light, and it takes Steve’s breath away. He uses that as an excuse for why he doesn’t react in time to stop Tony from kissing him.
The kiss lasts around a second and Steve separates them, sighing through his nose, “Tony … “ He doesn’t know what to say, because by god, he wants this too but not now. And not like this. “You’re not – ” He looks up and Tony’s expression freezes the words in his throat.
“You are real.” Tony states, his soft contentment swimming away.
“Yes.” Steve reminds him, “And you – this isn’t something we should do. You’re confused.”
Tony’s face hardens, “I’m not confused,” He glares, “I’m tired of being told that.”
“What day is it?” Steve asks and immediately regrets it. Tony gives him a long look, reminding him of the fact that he’s been locked away in the dark for god knows how long.
“Monday.” He guesses anyway.
“Thursday.” Steve tells him and he lowers his eyes, almost ashamed at having the answer wrong.
“I left the tower Thursday,” He says, “I thought, in the mansion. Wasn’t I there for days?”
“Jess came to get me when you’d gone in.” Steve says, “It was only today.”
“But what about – the glow?” Tony’s eyes are manic again and Steve hates this. So much. “The glow in the sky.”
“The moon?” Steve asks and Tony’s look is so close to one he would have given years ago that Steve almost forgets what has happened between them.
“No.” Tony says, “A glow. It blew Janet up but she came through. Like a light. A butterfly.”
“For God’s sake Tony, I’m too tired for this – ”
Tony stands, “We have to go get her!” He shouts, “She’s in the mansion, alone. The glow – she – there’s nothing there for her. She needs us.”
“Janet’s dead Tony.” Steve says.
“It collapsed, maybe she’s stuck.” Tony suggests.
“She’s dead.” Steve repeats but he’s completely ignored.
“No. She’s not, Luke has her.” Steve stands at that, fed up, “Luke’s got her glow, in him. But, the butterfly … it’s black. It’s in his – ”
“Stop it Tony.”
“It’s growing.” Tony continues, wide-eyed, “Janet’s – “
“Janet is DEAD!” Steve grabs him by the shoulders, yelling, “She’s dead Tony. The mansion’s gone, she’s dead and you’re delusional.”
Tony stares at him, “You’re real.” He says again and Steve groans behind his teeth.
“Yes, I’m fucking real Tony.” He snarls, “This is all real! Our friends are either dead or wanting to be! This is the world we live in and pretending otherwise isn’t going to help!” Tony has gone still now, “I’m sorry for what happened to you, I understand how it might have affected you, but you need to stop.”
“I can’t.” Tony tells him and Steve falls back onto the sofa, putting his head in his hands. Tony stands like a statue, his hands at his sides, “I don’t know how.”
“Just get some sleep Tony.” Steve says, exhausted, “We’ll talk more in the morning.”
“I’m going back to the Hole?” Tony asks, sounding calmer now but still so scared.
“No.” Steve gestures to the bedroom, “You’re going there.” After a moment, Tony listens, slowly walking toward the bedroom and stepping into it. He looks back once, tears in his eyes.
“Why did you have to be real?” He asks and Steve has no answer to that. The door shuts and he’s alone again but he can’t sleep now. He stays awake the rest of the night hating himself and how he’s handling this situation instead.
His anger at Tony is hindering his wish to help him and he can’t keep losing his temper like this. He can do better.
Sometime during the night, the power switches off and he stares out the window at the blackness, praying for sleep that doesn’t come. Come morning, he makes himself a cup of coffee in the light of the sun, flinching when the bell rings at the door.
He opens it to see Jess and she looks marginally better than she had yesterday, “You found him,” She says, “Peter says you took him here.” He lets her in, resigned, and she looks around, “I called Shield to get him, I’m sorry. I didn’t think you’d – well.”
“Did you know about the Hole?” Steve asks her and she blinks.
“The Hole. In the tower.”
She looks disappointed, though not at him, “Of course.” She says, “I’d visit him, on my rota. I was out-voted and Luke and I argue constantly about Dani’s safety and Tony’s mind.”
“Why didn’t you call me?” He asks and she shrugs.
“Why didn’t you ask about him?” Is her counter, “I’d no idea if you’d care or not and I didn't want to drag up bad memories.”
“You thought I’d care yesterday.”
“Yesterday was one of his worst episodes.” Jess explains, “I didn’t know who else to get to help him. I knew you would.”
“What are his episodes?” Steve asks, “Delusions of dead people that the Hole and Osborn’s alarm haven’t helped?”
“Not always.” Jess says, “Sometimes he, he’ll say something odd. It won’t make sense, but to him … he thinks we’re the stupid ones for not understanding.” She picks at her bottom lip with a nail, “He once told me he was worried about the sky. Said it looked angry.”
“We were inside, in the room.” Jess says, “You couldn’t see the sky even if you wanted to.” She sighs, running a hand down her face, “Anyway. Where is he?”
“He’s in my room. I’m letting him sleep in.” He puts his coffee down and walks past her to open the door, slipping in quietly. Tony’s lying on his stomach, his face pressed to the pillows, and he looks pale even now.
He steps closer to wake him before catching sight of the switch by the door. It’s on but with the power outage, useless. He turns it off and feels his heart pound at something that his brain knows but isn’t revealing.
The bedroom is dark, with the curtains blinds that he keeps shut and the lights all off. Steve’s bed is low, near the ground, and Tony consistently forgets where he is. He takes a step back, breathing heavily, but eventually braves it and pulls the blankets down.
Tony’s eyes are half shut, a crescent of white only, and his lips are parted. The mattress is stained red.
Jess steps in to see what’s taking so long a few minutes later and she glances at him with a frown only to freeze when she sees Tony.
“Oh my God!” She drops with a cry, fumbling around his bleeding wrists for a pulse.
She won’t find one.
He remembers Tony from last night, kissing him and wishing he hadn’t been real. Wanting a ghost of Steve who would at least give him what he wanted before he died.
I wanted to die when you were gone. I tried too. In the Hole. But there was nothing sharp enough.
Steve looks at the bedside table. He sees his kitchen knife and falls to his knees as well.
Tony had thought he was back in the Hole. And he’d found something sharp enough.
Jess is sobbing but Steve’s eyes are dry and he pulls her away, calling an ambulance before changing his mind, hoping to keep this quiet. For Tony’s sake.
He calls Peter instead, sitting on the sofa and giving Jess a glass of water. She drinks it, wiping at her face, shaking with shock.
“He was safe.” She whispers, “He was with you, why would he – ?”
“He thought he was back in the Hole.” Steve says, numb, “The power went out so it was dark.” As if on cue, the lights switch back on and he throws his glass at his lamp. Jess avoids the spray easily and walks to the window.
Her sobbing calms in the hour it takes for Peter to get here and Steve spends it sat at the kitchen counter, staring at his hands.
Tony had kissed him and he’d pulled away. That’s what Tony had used to see that he was real. He’d believed Steve doesn’t want him.
He’d died believing that.
His tears bubble up and he almost screams when Jess suddenly speaks, looking out the window, “Angry Sky.” She says and Steve looks up. Despite being past sun rise now, the sky is a dark red, rain clouds rolling through and over what had been pure blue not ten minutes ago.
He stands to join her, running his hands down the walls as he does, and his fingers come away damp. He looks back and sees a grey spot growing from a drip of water in the corner. He stares, his hands shaking.
There’s mould in here.
He stops breathing for a moment, his mind working overtime as he pieces everything together. It can’t be.
“Jess.” He says slowly, “What does a glowing butterfly mean?”
“What?” She sniffs, turning to him, “I don’t – do you mean a white butterfly?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“It’s an omen.” She says, “It means – someone you love, who’s dead, is watching over you.”
Steve’s throat constricts, “And a black butterfly?”
“Bad omen.” She says, “Death. Why, you believe in all this?” The question is a distraction for her but they don’t have time for that now.
“I need you to call Luke.” She blinks but after a second, does as told, “And tell him to go to Beast for a scan.”
“A scan?” Jess frowns, repeating the message and telling Luke she doesn’t know why but for him to just fucking listen and go okay, I’ve got other stuff going on!
She turns the phone off, glaring at Steve, “Why did I just do that?” She demands and he points at the sky.
“Tony wasn’t crazy.” He says, “He was seeing things, yeah, but they were all true. Osborn must have known it and had wanted to use it.”
Jess scoffs, “I’m pretty sure Osborn’d be alive if that’s the case.”
“He made the mistake of mentally torturing Tony as well. None of Tony’s predictions made sense after that.” Jess looks at him, “Angry Sky. Mould.” He points at the wall, “Glowing butterfly is Janet. Black Butterfly in Luke.”
“Steve now you’re not making sense.” Jess argues but a knock interrupts them. Peter steps in when he realises the flat’s unlocked and he sees them both stood there.
“Um. … you called me.” He sounds small and Steve nods, leading him to the room. Usually, there’d be a time for them to grieve and react to shock, but right now Tony’s body’s still losing blood and the room smells like a butcher’s shop.
Peter reacts anyway but uses the clean sheet that Steve hands him to wrap Tony up, carrying him gently to his car. Steve and Jess follow, planning to put Tony in the Tower’s medical on ice, until they decide what the hell to do.
Beast is there already and he’s solemn but clinical, unwrapping Tony’s body and suturing his wrists. Luke’s sat on a table, watching with dull eyes, and he kisses Jess on auto-pilot, his shirt off from a scan he must have just had.
“I had a tumour.” He rasps, “Tiny thing but could have gotten bigger. Hank got it out.” Jess stares at him and then at Steve.
“How – ?”
“Tony knew.” Steve says, “He wasn’t crazy, he was seeing the future. Osborn had tortured his sanity but the things he was saying were true. The last thing he wanted before he died was to warn you.” He says this to Luke and is bitterly gratified to see him glance away in shame.
He leaves the room then, refusing to watch as Tony is undressed and packed away in ice like a stack of meat. He heads for the penthouse instead, for the Hole, intent on smashing it to pieces.
When he steps inside, however, Sam’s already there. He’s on his knees, fiddling with the lock pad and he looks startled when he sees him standing behind him.
“Steve.” He stands himself, “Jesus, I – Pete told us what – ” He stops, “Is it true?”
“He killed himself.” Steve says, “Getting rid of that alarm is useless.” Sam wilts but he doesn’t care right now. He can’t care about anything because his heart is downstairs on a cold table and Tony has died thinking he doesn’t want him.
“I’m so sorry.”
“Yeah. Me too.” He sucks in a deep breath, looking up at the ceiling for a moment and Sam steps toward him.
“Did you want to be alone?” He asks and Steve doesn’t answer but he understands anyway and walks around him. There’s something white on the ground and neither of them spot it until too late and Sam steps on it and loses his balance, falling backward and stumbling toward the wide windows where Tony’s bed had once been.
Steve catches him instantly and sets him upright, the both of them panting at that near call, and Sam composes himself and claps a hand to Steve’s shoulder.
“Fuck,” He gasps, “Thanks.” He shakes his head with a jerk, blinking sharply, “Wow. I’ll uh, I’ll go now. Be careful up here.”
Steve just nods, his eyes on the white ball that Sam had stepped on. It’s the ball of socks that he’d seen before, the ones he’d kicked away.
He looks at the window that Sam would have fallen through and he knows that drop. Without his suit, to Sam, it’s a death drop.
He would have died if Steve hadn’t been here. He would have died because of socks.
I need my socks.
He falls to his knees and lifts the ball of socks into his hands, staring down at them like he was holding his children, and then he’s sobbing.
He’s sobbing and sobbing and he can’t stop. All Tony’s been doing is trying to help and he was isolated and forced into losing his mind.
And now he’s dead.
He crumples the socks in his hands, his sobs grating against his throat and he screams, hunched over and rocking, remembering Tony through the sheer smell of the room.
He doesn’t stop for hours.
A week later, he heads back to the mansion and back to Tony’s lab. It’s still intact compared to the rest of the building, and he sits at the same desk that Tony had sat in before.
There’s a box sitting there that he hadn’t noticed the last time. Inside is the bomb that Criti Noll had planted on Janet. He opens it and presses a hand to his mouth.